Art from the colonial era Towards restitution in seven-league boots?

estitution? From the North America Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Chilkat apron of the indigenous Tlingit from the northwest coast of America, period of origin: around 1800 to 1850
From the North America Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Chilkat apron of the indigenous Tlingit from the northwest coast of America, period of origin: around 1800 to 1850 | Photo (detail): Museum Five Continents Munich © MFK

At the moment there is lively debate about the return of cultural artefacts from colonial contexts to the origin societies. The discussion has given rise both to plausible solutions and new, even more complex questions, according to Uta Werlich, the director of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich.

By Uta Werlich

The way cultural artefacts from colonial contexts are handled is currently at the centre of a widely conducted debate that has been catalysed in recent years, expressed in particular through criticism of the Humboldt Forum by civic initiatives, through the speech given by French president Emmanuel Macron in November 2017 in Burkina Faso – in which he called for conditions to be put in place within five years for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage, as well as the subsequently published report Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain. Vers une nouvelle éthique relationelle by Bénédicte Savoy und Felwine Sarr. In Germany they expressed the intent to address the colonial era in the governmental coalition agreement in 2018; the state ministers of culture, government representatives and community umbrella organisations established their positions the following year in a key issues paper. Just a few weeks later the German Museum Association  published a second, revised edition of the “Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts”, which was first published in May 2018 as a result of cooperation by an interdisciplinary working group. Whilst the “Guidelines” emphasise that dealing with collections from colonial contexts is something that applies to almost all museum sectors, ethnological museums and collections are confronted with questions about the origin of objects especially frequently.

Finding a common solution

In April 2019, directors of ethnological museums and collections in German-speaking countries proposed a common viewpoint – in which they not only committed to providing transparent information about their artefacts and allowing public access to any research involving their collections, but also to speaking out in favour of restitution of illegally acquired artefacts. Cooperative provenance research with partners from the origin countries and societies in question is seen as a basis for clarifying acquisition contexts. Initial steps in this direction have recently been facilitated by the “Funding of Provenance Research Projects for Cultural Goods from Colonial Contexts”, which comes under the umbrella of the German Lost Art Foundation (Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste; DZK).
  • Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich: founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany with the name Royal Ethnographic Collection, since 1917 State Museum of Ethnology and renamed Museum Fünf Kontinente in 2014 Marietta Weidner © Museum Fünf Kontinente
    Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich: founded in 1862 as the first ethnological museum in Germany with the name Royal Ethnographic Collection, since 1917 State Museum of Ethnology and renamed Museum Fünf Kontinente in 2014
  • Restitution? Large Collection: Insight into the permanent exhibition Oceania of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich Nicolai Kästner © MFK
    Large Collection: Insight into the permanent exhibition Oceania of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich
  • Restitution?  From the Oceania Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Bark bast mask from Muliama in Southern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, from 1899 to 1914 part of the German colony German New Guinea The Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich © MFK
    From the Oceania Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Bark bast mask from Muliama in Southern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, from 1899 to 1914 part of the German colony German New Guinea
  • Restitution? From the Oceania Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Gable wall of a ceremonial storehouse for yams, Papua New Guinea The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich © MFK
    From the Oceania Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Gable wall of a ceremonial storehouse for yams, Papua New Guinea
  • Restitution? View into the permanent exhibition Orient of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich Nicolai Kästner © MFK
    View into the permanent exhibition Orient of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich
  • Restitution? From the Orient Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Koranic leaf in the Kufi duct from a dervish convent, North Africa or the Middle East, written between the 9th and 10th centuries The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich © MFK
    From the Orient Collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Koranic leaf in the Kufi duct from a dervish convent, North Africa or the Middle East, written between the 9th and 10th centuries
  • Restitution? From the South America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Ceramic vessel in the shape of a jaguar from Guanacaste (Costa Rica), made between the 8th and 13th centuries The Museum Fünf Kontinente Munich © MFK
    From the South America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Ceramic vessel in the shape of a jaguar from Guanacaste (Costa Rica), made between the 8th and 13th centuries
  • Restitution? From the South America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Ceramic bowl of the Maya from Guatemala, created between the 6th and 9th century The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich © MFK
    From the South America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Ceramic bowl of the Maya from Guatemala, created between the 6th and 9th century
  • Restitution? From the North America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Cloth, so-called tepee liner, cotton, watercolours, painted with a warrior's exploits. Plains, North Dacota, Standing Rock Reservation. Around 1880. collection of Princess Therese of Bavaria. The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich © MFK
    From the North America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Cloth, so-called tepee liner, cotton, watercolours, painted with a warrior's exploits. Plains, North Dacota, Standing Rock Reservation. Around 1880. collection of Princess Therese of Bavaria.
  • Restitution? From the North America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Cloth, so-called tepee liner, cotton, watercolours, painted with a warrior's exploits. Plains, North Dacota, Standing Rock Reservation. Around 1880. collection of Princess Therese of Bavaria. The Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich © MFK
    From the North America collection of the Museum Fünf Kontinente in Munich: Cloth, so-called tepee liner, cotton, watercolours, painted with a warrior's exploits. Plains, North Dacota, Standing Rock Reservation. Around 1880. collection of Princess Therese of Bavaria.
In November 2019, the Museum Five Continents was awarded a grant from the DZK and the Bavarian State Ministry of Science and the Arts, initially approved for twelve months, to fund research for the largely unexplained origin history of around 200 objects from a comprehensive set of works from Cameroon given to the museum in the 1890s by Max von Stetten – who was chief of the police force and subsequently commander of the protection troop in Cameroon.

If it turns out that the circumstances of acquisition for significant objects within that collection can be established, and if the assumption at the beginning of the project can be confirmed – that the objects originate from a context of violence and are therefore in the museum illegally by today’s standards – then restitution is something that merits some thought. It is essential to clarify through discussion with our project partners in Cameroon and representatives of the origin societies whether they want restitution or an alternative form of compensation; also in the event of restitution, consideration needs to be given to the possibility of a long-term loan to the Museum Five Continents; and the question as to the recipient of the returned items is sure to arise: to the national government, to an origin society, or to a private individual? Congruent interests can’t always be assumed here, and differentiating between justified and unjustified claims is certain to play a greater role in future than it has until now in the discussion about how our colonial heritage is handled.

Collaborative knowledge production

With its “Blue Rider Post” project and Max von Stetten’s collection (1893–1896) from Cameroon in the Museum Five Continents Munich, the museum has started to research the colonial history of its collections. At this point it’s reasonable to ask whether there’s any point in checking out individual objects, or whether different strategies need to be applied in view of the large number of artefacts that ended up in Munich – even just during the German colonial era.
With regard to the collection put together by Max von Stetten, we are working on an open outcome basis, but we do not rule out the possibility of restitutions. But we don’t view them as the sole objective of the project. It’s more about collaborative production of knowledge relating to a sensitive collection and a shared history, about building relationships and establishing networks. The work of the Museum Five Continents will only change in a lasting and significant way if we succeed in maintaining and consolidating this beyond the end of the project and any restitutions.

Uta Werlich has been director of the Museum Five Continents in Munich since April 2018.